Date(s) - 06/23/2018 - 06/29/2018
The Mission Blue Expedition Team traveled to the northernmost inhabited region on Earth to document the negative effects of climate change faced there, including rapidly melting glaciers and polluted waters. Spitsbergen Island, as part of the Svalbard Archipelago, is one of the places on Earth that perhaps faces the most extreme effects of a warming planet. We met with local experts, field researchers, influencers and officials to gain a better understanding of the science and policy context affecting this region. This expedition was sponsored by Biotherm, Polar Bears International, IUCN, ScubaPro and Gates Products – a huge thank you for their support!
Throughout the week, the Expedition Team explored this remote ecosystem with a team of experts. Along the way we documented our discoveries both above and below the surface using state-of-the-art equipment. Our goal in creating vivid multimedia content was to ignite awareness and support for actions and policies that will limit climate change and thereby help protect this spectacular Hope Spot. We took the polar plunge, as they say, and captured imagery of polar bears, walruses, reindeers, seabirds, and many more iconic species unique to this region. The results of our outreached produced scores of blogs, videos, social media posts and live video broadcasts that educated and informed millions of people about the complex issues facing this unique ecosystem.
The Expedition is Live on Google Earth!
Thanks to a special partnership with Google, the vast, icy landscapes we observed at Spitsbergen Island is now live as an interactive experience on Google Earth – check it out here!
Located in the chilly waters between mainland Norway and the North Pole, this Arctic Hope Spot supports a high diversity of marine species and contains many unique habitats found nowhere else in the world, including dramatic glaciers and mountain fjords. Spitsbergen (formerly known as West Spitsbergen or Vestspitsbergen in Norwegian) is the largest and only permanently populated island of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. Constituting the westernmost bulk of the archipelago, the island borders the Arctic Ocean, Norwegian Sea, and Greenland Sea. Spitsbergen covers an area of 39,044 km2 (15,075 sq mi), making it the largest island in Norway and the 36th-largest in the world. The island was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which it was abandoned. Coal mining started at the end of the 19th century, establishing several permanent communities. The island has an Arctic climate, although with significantly higher temperatures than other places at the same latitude. Adorned with glaciers, mountains and fjords, Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds and supports polar bears (the iconic symbol of Spitsbergen). Read more in our expedition announcement, Mission Blue Launches First Arctic Expedition to the Spitsbergen Island Hope Spot.
The Consequences of a Warming Planet: Melting Ice
Glaciers are commonly presumed to be silent masses floating in the ocean. However, if you get close enough, you’ll actually hear them crackle, crunch and pop as they expand and even collide with one another, breaking off chunks to create icebergs. Of course, the sounds of these icebergs also imply something more sinister: melting. As global temperatures warm, sea ice and glaciers are already vanishing at unprecedented rates, and melting is speeding up. This phenomenon was a main focus of this Hope Spot Expedition, and one the team frequently witnessed throughout the trip.
Motoring a small Zodiac with our team of nine through the icy blue water, Mette Eliseussen, Manager and Expedition Leader for Arctic Voyagers at Basecamp Spitsbergen stopped the engine and exclaimed that we were now “inside” a glacier, according to her map. “If you look behind us,” she said, “the glacier went all the way to the end of this little mountain on this side, and then you can see the moraines lying on the other side. It indicates where the glacier went before.” Our boat was at least one to two kilometers inside these markers, meaning that the glacier had melted to a point not yet observed by humans at the time the map was drawn approximately 50 years ago. “It’s huge change that is happening here—dramatic, I would say.”
To learn more about the glacial melt in Spitsbergen, dive in to our second expedition blog post, Stories from the Ice by Courtney Mattison, and watch below as scientists describe how exactly the sea ice is melting and its negative effect on the wildlife that inhabits the region.
Under the Waves
“The first thing that hits you is just the shock of the cold,” says Dr. Helena Reinardy, Associate Professor of Ecotoxicology at The University Centre Svalbard (UNIS) and member of the Longyearbyen Dive Club. She continues, “You think, I’ve got to get out right now!… But then you very quickly get used to it.”
Kip Evans, Mission Blue Director of Expeditions and Photography, encountered some curious harbor seals while scuba diving in a small bay close to 80° north latitude:
I got in… and just kind of floated around on the surface, and the harbor seals were immediately all over me, coming up to me. I’m sure it’s one of the very few times they’ve ever interacted with someone in the water. And they would come zipping by at 20 miles and hour and then stop on a dime and look me right in the face, and then they would continue on. The thing about harbor seals, as compared to other marine mammals I’ve been with in the water, is they are truly underwater acrobats. And similar to sea lions, they come and they twist and they turn and are just so agile. And I feel like a clumsy clown when I’m in the water with them because they are just incredibly graceful.
Read more about the wonders of Spitsbergen’s mystic waters in our third expedition blog post, Spitsbergen Beneath the Surface by Courtney Mattison.
A Perilous Plight
The melting sea in the Norwegian Arctic serves as more than a signal of a warming planet: it’s the main cause of the declining polar bear population. Polar bears depend on sea ice — ice that forms directly from seawater — as platforms to hunt seals, their main prey. Their dependence on the sea for food and habitat makes them the only bear species to be considered a marine mammal, and the first to be threatened by climate change. Global warming is occurring more quickly at the poles than elsewhere on Earth, making ice melt earlier in the spring and freeze up later in the fall. Less sea ice directly leads to fewer calories for polar bears, causing them to have smaller body sizes, fewer cubs and eventually smaller populations.
“I think the loss of sea ice really affects the whole ecosystem,” says Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist for Polar Bears International, who shared her expertise during the expedition. She continues, “We sometimes say sea ice is to the ocean what soil is to the forest. It’s really growing the food chain. As we’re losing that, we’re seeing a total shift of all these different species.” Learn more about this awe-inspiring marine mammal and the other creatures navigating Spitsbergen’s icy waters in our fourth and final expedition blog post, Polar Bears of Svalbard by Courtney Mattison.